The Impossibly Cool Album Covers of Blue Note Records: Meet the Creative Team Behind These Iconic Designs

If you stepped into a record store in the 1950s and 60s, you would like­ly be drawn almost imme­di­ate­ly to a Blue Note release—whether or not you were a fan of jazz or had heard of the artist or even the label. “If you went to those record stores,” says Estelle Caswell in the Vox Ear­worm video above, “it prob­a­bly wasn’t the sound of Blue Note that imme­di­ate­ly caught your atten­tion. It was their album cov­ers.”

Now those designs are hal­lowed jazz iconog­ra­phy, with their “bold typog­ra­phy, two tone pho­tog­ra­phy, and min­i­mal graph­ic design.” Of course, it should go with­out say­ing that the sound of Blue Note is as dis­tinc­tive and essen­tial as its look, thanks to its founders’ musi­cal vision, the fault­less ear of pro­duc­er and engi­neer Rudy Van Gelder, and the ros­ter of unbe­liev­ably great musi­cians the label recruit­ed and record­ed.

But back to those cov­ers….

“Their bold use of col­or, inti­mate pho­tog­ra­phy, and metic­u­lous­ly placed typog­ra­phy came to define the look of jazz” in the hard bop era, and thus, defined the look of cool, a “refined sophis­ti­ca­tion” vibrat­ing with rest­less, sul­try, smoky, classy, moody ener­gy. The rat pack had noth­ing on Blue Note. Their cov­ers “have today become an epit­o­me of graph­ic hip,” writes Robin Kin­ross at Eye mag­a­zine. (And lest we fetishize the cov­ers at the expense of their con­tents, Kin­ross makes sure to add that they “are no more than the vis­i­ble man­i­fes­ta­tion of an organ­ic whole.”)

Flip over any one of those beau­ti­ful­ly-designed Blue Note records from, say, 1955 to 65, the label’s peak years, and you’ll find two names cred­it­ed for almost all of their designs: pho­tog­ra­ph­er Fran­cis Wolff and graph­ic design­er Reid Miles. Wolff, says pro­duc­er and Blue Note archivist Michael Cus­cu­na in the Ear­worm video, shot almost every Blue Note ses­sion from “the minute he arrived.”

“One of the most impres­sive, and shock­ing things” about Wolff’s pho­to shoots, “was that the aver­age suc­cess rate of those pho­tos was real­ly extra­or­di­nary. He was like the jazz artist of pho­tog­ra­phy in that he could nail it imme­di­ate­ly.” Once Wolff filled a con­tact sheet with great shots, it next came to Miles to select the per­fect one—and the per­fect crop—for the album cov­er. These sat­u­rat­ed por­traits turned Blue Note artists into immor­tal heroes of hip.

But Reid’s exper­i­ments with typog­ra­phy, “inspired by the ever present Swiss let­ter­ing style that defined 20th cen­tu­ry graph­ic design,” notes Vox, pro­vid­ed such an impor­tant ele­ment that the let­ter­ing some­times edged out the pho­tog­ra­phy, such as in the cov­er of Joe Henderson’s In ‘n Out, which fea­tures only a tiny por­trait of the artist in the upper left-hand cor­ner, nes­tled in the dot of a low­er-case “i.”

Miles pushed the excla­ma­tion point to absurd lengths on Jack­ie McLean’s It’s Time, which again rel­e­gates the artist’s pho­to to a tiny square in the cor­ner while the rest of the cov­er is tak­en up with bold, black “!!!!!!!!!!!”s over a white back­ground. It’s “star­tling­ly get­ting your atten­tion,” Cus­cu­na com­ments. On Lou Donaldson’s Sun­ny Side Up, Miles dis­pens­es with pho­tog­ra­phy alto­geth­er, for a strik­ing black and white design that makes the title seem like it might up and float away.

But Miles’ type-cen­tric cov­ers, though excel­lent, are not what we usu­al­ly asso­ciate with the clas­sic Blue Note look. The syn­the­sis of Wolff’s impec­ca­ble pho­to­graph­ic instincts and Miles’ sur­gi­cal­ly keen eye for fram­ing, col­or, and com­po­si­tion com­bined to give us the pen­sive, mys­te­ri­ous Coltrane on Blue Train, the impos­si­bly cool Son­ny Rollins on the cov­er of Newk’s Time, the total­ly, wild­ly in-the-moment Art Blakey on The Big Beat, and so, so many more.

Reid Miles had the rare tal­ent only the best art direc­tors pos­sess, says Cus­cu­na: the abil­i­ty to “cre­ate a look for a record that was high­ly indi­vid­ual but also that fit into a stream that gave the label a look.” Learn more about his work with Wolff in Robin Kinross’s essay, see many more clas­sic Blue Note album cov­ers here, and make sure to lis­ten to the music behind all that bril­liant graph­ic design in this huge, stream­ing discog­ra­phy of Blue Note record­ings. To view them in print for­mat, see the defin­i­tive book, The Cov­er Art of Blue Note Records: The Col­lec­tion.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Stream a 144-Hour Discog­ra­phy of Clas­sic Jazz Record­ings from Blue Note Records: Miles Davis, Art Blakey, John Coltrane, Ornette Cole­man & More

The Ground­break­ing Art of Alex Stein­weiss, Father of Record Cov­er Design

Enter the Cov­er Art Archive: A Mas­sive Col­lec­tion of 800,000 Album Cov­ers from the 1950s through 2018

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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